What ship did you cruise? And how many nights? How did you decide on this particular sailing?We cruised the Carnival Sunshine for an 8 day sailing. For the past few cruises we’ve been cruising with family. My wife and I had been to St. Maarten before, but neither had been to St. Kitts. For the rest of the family that was travelling both St. Kitts and St. Maarten would be new to them. The 8-day over the standard 7-day also appealed. I had actually voted to cruise the western Caribbean on the Magic. Then I found out that not only was my favorite cruise director (Reverend Dr. E) going to sail the Magic, but also Head Cruise Director/Brand Ambassador John Heald would also be aboard the Magic. So I was a little disappointed that we’d be on Sunshine instead, but I too was looking forward to the 8-day itinerary.
What Port did you cruise from? How was your embarkation? We cruised out of Port Canaveral. It’s a port we’ve used before. Embarkation was fairly simple. We had chosen boarding time slot 11:00 – 11:30 AM, and were placed in boarding zone 3. The terminal employees were stern about making sure everyone sat and stayed in their seats until boarding began. The process went smoothly, we were walking aboard the ship around noon.
What were your first impressions of the ship? I had my reservations about sailing on the Sunshine. In doing research I had come across a lot of concerns because of crowding. It seemed that when Carnival refit the Destiny into the Sunshine that they added quite a few additional guest-cabins which added to the ships population. Additionally they decreased the size of the lido. I didn’t find a lot of positive reviews and was fairly against sailing her myself. I must say, I have to eat my words, and shun my concerns. The Sunshine is a very beautifully designed ship. Most of the interior spaces are done in light airy tones, and the cabins (at least the few I could see) were overhauled in the new style Carnival appears to be using on its newer ships like the Breeze and the Vista. It didn’t take long for me to regret any concern I had about sailing on her.
What kind of stateroom? What did you think of it? Did it have enough storage and power outlets? We had a balcony cabin on deck 8 aft. As I mentioned it was redone in the lighter more relaxed tones. The full-wall mirror area was replaced by a single mirror. We had what appeared to be book-shelves for storage, and the bathroom shower stall was finally larger than in past cruises. The one drawback is still that there is still only one power outlet. This was easily remedied by bringing a power strip for our various devices’ charging cables. (Top Tip – make sure you bring a non-surge bar, as surge-bars are not ship-friendly)
Talk to be me about dining, from the main dining room to the lido deck and everything in between? We had any-time dining. I enjoy the freedom of deciding when to go down to eat. Especially on a port-day where you might not get back on the ship until later. However the first night my group of six went down, we arrived around 6:30 and were not seated until about 7:30. It wasn’t what I would consider efficient. Something I’ve noticed on my past few cruises with Carnival whether on board the Sunshine, the Magic, or the Pride; the main dining rooms seem under-staffed. By no means do I blame our waiters. They’ve all worked hard and I get fed. But you hear about the dreaded ‘cutbacks’ as you read reviews, and comments on cruise boards. To me this is the most noticeable cutback since I started sailing in 2010. It used to be that our waiter and his little team would get to know you, spend a few moments talking to you each night about your day and maybe the upcoming ports, or just chat in general. It was awesome that by the second night they knew your drink preference and your name. Fast forward to now, and they just seem to have too many table assignments to chat with you. It seems like they now fly by and drop off food and run off to the next table. You might have a long wait for more bread or drink refills, and I can’t say that I’ve really learned much about my wait staff beyond their names. Again it’s not something I blame the wait staff for. They work hard. I just think they are over-worked and as a result the dining room experience has dropped. It almost seems like there’s an underlying intention to lessen the experience so that guests will be encouraged to use the fee-based restaurant options. The night that we ate in the main dining room was unusually loud as well. I’m a very easy-going person and can usually go with the flow in most cases. But in crowded situations that get loud I get a little anxious. Especially if I can’t just have a simple conversation with my party at our table without repeating myself or having to speak up (and thereby add to the overall volume of the room!) The remainder of this cruise I ate in either the Lido Marketplace or Cucina del Capitano. Again this was not the fault of our wait staff and the food we had was very good. When we ate in Cucina, they were very attentive to both my wife’s gluten allergy and my father-in-law’s low-sodium diet. Our party felt taken care of and the food was excellent. The rest of the week we did grab Guy’s Burgers a handful of times which are fantastic! My personal favorite is the Mongolian Wok. In the past Mongolian Wok was a very crowded venue on ships we’ve sailed. On the Sunshine it is located in the aft of the ship where they have the evening restaurant JiJi’s Asian Kitchen. It felt like many guests weren’t aware that the Havana area which housed Cucina and JiJi’s was even there. So lines for Mongolian Wok were never long at all. So we were able to grab lunch there often. And in the morning they also have the omelet stations at Cucina and JiJi’s and again it seemed many didn’t realize this, so the lines were never long to get fresh omelets or eggs over easy!
Entertainment, what did you think of the entertainment options on your ship?I must say, I am not the type that is ever where the action is, so I can’t honestly give a fair reporting of the entertainment on board the Sunshine. I didn’t really attend any of the shows or comedians this week. However my father-in-law and step-mother-in-law both enjoyed all the comedy shows all week and said the comedians were great. Something I did this week that I hadn’t done on prior cruises was attended a “Dive-In Movie” one night. It was neat with the layout of the Sunshine, we were able to sit in the Serenity Deck and watch the movie screen on the pool deck. The popcorn machine had broken down that particular night so sadly no popcorn, but they provide fleece blankets to stay warm and it was a good time!
On a sea day you get a feel for how the ship handles with respect to the amount of guests on board. Was there plenty to do? Any areas of congestion or concern?As I’d mentioned I’d read many negative reviews about Sunshine having bad crowds in areas like Lido and the main pool decks. I can understand why folks would think it gets crowded. The lido marketplace does seem to get congested a little during peak meal times, and just like any ship, the pool deck does get crowded on a sea day. But I think overall the flow and congestion was no worse than any other ship I’ve sailed and I didn’t have any real complaints. I can see what others saw, but none of it really phased me. We did have one rainy sea day while coming back to Port Canaveral. The ship did seem fairly crowded indoors that day when no one really could be on the outside decks. But that was well outside the control of anyone. Overall I think the ship is laid out pretty well and there are plenty of activities to keep crowds dispersed all over the ship.
What ports did you visit? Any highlights or tips? We visited Grand Turk, San Juan, St. Kitts, and St (or Sint) Maarten. My wife and I liked this itinerary because we’d never been to St. Kitts before, and we’d just cruised to San Juan last September and really enjoyed it and were excited to go again. We’d also been to St. Maarten a number of years ago, but wanted to go again. So this itinerary had a lot to offer us. At Grand Turk we got off the boat and spent an hour or so at Margaritaville. It seems like a must-do if you’re going to this port. Then we walked up the beach to Jack’s Shack and spent the afternoon playing with the famous “Topher” (the owner’s dog) in the sand and water. I like walking up to Jack’s Shack, the prices for drinks are cheaper, the food is good (we had the fried conch fritters), and there are free chairs. You can rent an umbrella for a fee, but we didn’t this time. I also noticed from my balcony that the water is actually a bit clearer and bluer up at Jack’s as opposed to the beach at Margaritaville. Next was San Juan, Puerto Rico. We had ported there last September and it was an instant favorite. No excursions here, we just walked off the ship and explored Old San Juan for a bit. If you like all things chocolate you need to check out Casa Cortes Choco Bar! So many great foods and drinks made with chocolate! From there we did some shopping (or at least my wife and sister-in-law did some shopping!). We walked along the water towards Castillo San Felipe del Morro. We came across what seemed to be a cat sanctuary. Scattered around the fort were dozens of cats fed by random Tupperware bins filled with cat food. Many cats were friendly and you could pet them. (My wife insisted lots of hand-sanitizer afterwards!). I suspect they serve some sort of pest-control purpose. But I’m an animal lover so I enjoyed them. The fort itself guarding the entrance to the port was a great exploration. We did a little bit more shopping and headed back to the ship. Old San Juan is great fun to walk along the old cobblestone streets filled with colorful buildings and the people are very friendly. The next morning we arrived at St. Kitts, which was our first time. I kept saying that this island was basically how I imagined Hawaii looking. Great hills rose into the clouds, gorgeous views just about in every direction. Of course right off the boat there is the usual shopping and food offerings to get your retail and drink therapy. You can also hop in a cab to many of the beaches or visit Fort Brimstone. We got a cab to Cockleshell Beach, along the way our driver stopped at a very scenic overlook so we could take a picture of the island where on one side you can see the Atlantic Ocean and on the other the Caribbean Sea. And while there, locals had monkey’s that they would force into your arms… and then charge you for the ‘privilege’. I’d heard about this ‘custom’ before in reviews I’d read, but never experienced it. Can’t say I was a fan. We arrived at Cockleshell beach and rented ourselves chairs and umbrellas. This was a very pretty beach as well, not the best, definitely not the worst I’ve been to. Again more locals with monkeys… I had “Donald Trump” shoved into my arms, and my wife’s phone grabbed right out of her hands by this local who took 6 pictures then charged me $20. My wife and I were now annoyed. I don’t mind if you want to charge me for something, but how about telling me the price FIRST. My wife was none too pleased to have her phone ripped from her hands either. I was determined not to let this one thing ruin the day. We hung out on the beach for a bit then headed back to Basseterre [bass-tare]. We walked around the various storefronts made a few purchases and then headed back to the ship. In retrospect I think next time I will grab a tour of the fort. I enjoy history a lot and forts are always fun to visit affording great views and photo-ops. Our final stop was St. Maarten, which remains our favorite port stop thus far (San Juan is a close second!). What I like about St Maarten is that the locals are very friendly, the water is beautiful, and there are so many things to do. Our first time there we had visited Maho Beach to watch airplanes land. This time we stayed in Phillipsburg and (you guessed it!) shopped. Being a guy, I’m not a huge shopper, but if you’re going to pick a port to shop in, may as well be St. Maarten. You can pretty much find just about anything there. (I know this because my step-mother-in-law wanted to find yarn of all things!). After another round of shopping, we rented some beach chairs and umbrellas and my sister-in-law’s boyfriend and I rented jet skis. I’ve been on nine cruises and I never seem to find very many [reputable] options for jet-skiing. So when I find one, I like to take it. This time I was able to rent one for a half hour at $50.00 which I didn’t think was too bad. I’d rented one in Freeport for $80.00 before. OH and one other great tip- if you plan on visiting Phillipsburg for the day and think you may need to go back to your ship at all, pay the $7.00 for the water-taxi and you can ride all day long as much as you want. We’d run all our purchases back to the ship before returning to hang out on the beach. Next time we’re there I think we’re going to head to the French side to find some French food and see what Marigot is like.
When you returned to home port- how was debarkation? Did you do self-assist? Or zone debarkation? We always do self-assist debarkation as it tends to be quicker. We were packed and ready to go the night before. Our ship docked around 7:00 AM. I believe we grabbed some breakfast around 6:30 AM, then went down and grabbed our bags and headed for the atrium to sit and wait for our ‘zone’ to be called. They had just called the first deck to disembark (we had been on deck 8) but as soon as we got there, despite it not being our zone, they let us walk right off the boat. I think this was a record for us on getting off the boat quickly. We cleared customs and found the Budget Rental shuttle which took us to pick up our rental for the long drive back to PA. This was actually a happy surprise as we thought we’d need a taxi or an Uber to take us to the rental facility. We’d been unaware that the rental companies had shuttles. I sat in front with the driver and remarked how many ships they had docked today and how busy they’d be the remainder of the day. In addition to the Sunshine, the Carnival Magic, the Disney Fantasy, and the Norwegian (it was either Epic or Breakaway) were all docked that day. So lots of business for shuttle companies and taxis.
Your biggest highlight? It’s always hard to pinpoint one thing on a cruise for me. So many little things make cruising my favorite form of vacation and travel. I guess the biggest thing was discovering I was wrong about my misgivings of Sunshine. I really think she is a great ship and all her spaces are a pleasure to be in and walk through. I really enjoyed the 3-deck Serenity Area (despite this being the scene of the worst ‘chair hogs’. I also really enjoyed seeing St. Kitts for the first time, and returning to St. Maarten and San Juan again.
Your lowest low? I really hate to sound like a complainer because I really enjoy cruises and travel. But I think I am officially over the main dining room. In the short years I’ve been cruising the food quality seems to have dropped. It’s still good, just not ‘great’. But more concerning to me is that on the last four cruises, on three different sized ships, I feel the wait staff is over-worked and rush to throw a plate in front of you and then on to the next table. It’s no longer a highlight of the day. I don’t blame the staff, I blame the cruise line because it’s clearly just an attempt to save a few bucks on labor, and pushes people toward the more profitable ‘fee-based’ dining options. And I get it, businesses want to make as much money as they can. Just a little disappointing because dinners on a cruise are one of the hallmarks of cross-ocean travel.
Final thoughts of the ship, the cruise, the ports? I’ve been hooked on cruising since my very first cruise on the Carnival Pride. All nine of my cruises have been with Carnival and all have been enjoyable. This cruise was no different. We had a great time. The ship was enjoyable, the ports were great (minus the monkey business!), and overall just fun. However with that said as a cruiser who has never left one brand yet, I feel that my next booking will be with a different cruise line. I’m just ready to get a new ‘flavor’ of cruising and see things from a different perspective. So while we have one more already booked for next February with Carnival on board the Magic (and hoping the great Reverend Dr. E will be our cruise director!), beyond that I think I’d like to give Royal Caribbean a try next!
TIPS:One final thought- this was our first opportunity to use the Carnival HUB app, and it was great! Provided the daily schedule of events, access to our Sail and Sign accounts, and we paid to use the Chat function so we could track each other down across the ship. I think this is a great companion piece to the cruise! One tweak I’d recommend in future updates on the app would be to have dining menus loaded, and the ability to making dining reservations.